Aug. 19, 1996
Aug. 19, 1996

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Aug. 19, 1996

Baseball [bonus Piece]



This is an article from the Aug. 19, 1996 issue Original Layout

The Angels players said the right things when manager Marcel
Lachemann resigned on Aug. 6. They acknowledged what a shame it
was that they hadn't performed up to expectations and noted that
Lachemann deserved better. Then they went out and dropped their
first five games under interim skipper John McNamara, including
an embarrassing 18-3 loss to the Royals last Saturday night.
It's shocking to consider how far California has fallen in such
a short time.

Last Aug. 15 the Angels had a 64-38 record and led the American
League West by 10 1/2 games. Since then, through Sunday, they
had gone 67-93. At week's end they were 12 1/2 games out of
first and seemed sure to finish last in a division many
prognosticators figured they would win. Utilityman Rex Hudler
says that when California started losing again this year,
following its late-season collapse in 1995, "there was a panic,
and Lach didn't know how to handle it. We felt we had to win in
May or June. There was pressure, pressure, pressure. It's hard
to play with your hands around your throat."

"We lost our confidence last year, and a lot of guys are still
doubting themselves," says centerfielder Jim Edmonds. "You can't
play that way."

The Angels will take the rest of the season to search for a new
manager. They need a fiery, turn-over-the-postgame-spread kind
of guy; no other team needs a kick in the pants more. And while
the front office is searching, it should also try to find a few
players who hustle, cajole and inspire. "We need three or four
starting guys who are leaders, who have that intensity, because
we don't have that here," says Hudler. "We don't have the fire
here because we don't have the matches."

Even new Angels president Tony Tavares ripped into his team last
week, saying, "We have too many players who look like they came
from Newport Beach, where their daddies and mommies gave them
everything they wanted.'' Indeed, too many of the Angels seem
not to be overly bothered by losing. That's evidence that
California hasn't recovered from the loss of spark plug
outfielder Tony Phillips, who signed with the White Sox as a
free agent last winter. The Angels let him go because they
wanted to have second-year player Garret Anderson join young
stars Edmonds and Tim Salmon in the outfield.

Only Edmonds and closer Troy Percival seem to have the potential
to become team leaders. They can't make up for the horrible
pitching of Jim Abbott (1-15 through Sunday) and others on the
California staff, but they must ignite their laid-back
brethren--or the front office will have to bring in somebody who


You're on the mound. Your team is leading by a run with one out
in the bottom of the ninth, but the bases are loaded and Giants
sluggers Barry Bonds and Matt Williams are due up. Tough spot,
huh? For Astros rookie Billy Wagner, being in that situation on
Aug. 4 was no big deal--not after what he has faced. With the
calm of a seasoned closer, Wagner threw three fastballs by
Bonds, then three more by Williams. The Astros won 7-6, and a
star was born.

Billy Wagner, 25, is equal parts Ron Guidry and Jethro Bodine.
He's a smallish (5'11", 180-pound) lefthander with a Southern
twang and a fastball in the mid-90s. He was born in the
southwest Virginia town of Tannersville (pop. 271). "You can't
really call it a town--it has one store, the general store,
that's where you get your mail, groceries, everything," he
says. "It's easy to know everyone. There's nothing there but
mountains. You hunt or fish or go stir crazy."

To get to school every day, kids in his town--all 10 or 15 of
them--had to take an hour-long bus ride over the mountains to
Tazewell. With so few children around, Wagner learned to throw
by playing catch with himself. "I'd go out to a field, rear back
and see how far I could throw," he says. "I only had a few
balls. I'd throw them, go pick 'em up and throw 'em back." On an
aunt and uncle's farm, "there was a strike zone etched into the
cement wall of the dairy," Wagner says. "They've owned that
place forever, and they have no idea how that thing got there.
I'd throw against it for two hours a day. I'd throw 100 pitches,
and my cousin would count the balls and strikes. I had no idea
that any of that would ever lead to anything."

Wagner's parents divorced when he was five. After that he lived
with, in order, his father, his grandmother, his mother, his
other grandmother, his mother again, his father, the first
grandmother again, his father and then his aunt and uncle. "It
was always, 'What are we going to do with Billy?'" Wagner says.
The family never had much money ("Welfare?" he says. "I've seen
that"), but he enjoyed the rural life. He grew up hunting for
food; woodchuck was a favorite. "Still is. I love it," he says.
"It tastes like roast beef."

Wagner was a star pitcher in high school, but he was only 5'3"
and 135 pounds as a senior. He grew seven inches and gained 40
pounds, though, by the time he entered nearby Ferrum College.
His fastball went from 83 mph to 95. "It was like, Whoa!''
Wagner says. In three years at Ferrum, often working as the
closer in the first two games of a three-game series before
starting the finale, he set the Division III record for career
strikeouts (327 in 182 1/3 innings). In 1992 he averaged 19.1
strikeouts per nine innings, an NCAA record. The Astros chose
him in the first round of the '93 draft.

Wagner tore through the minors, striking out 204 batters in 153
innings at Class A Quad City, in Davenport, Iowa, in his second
pro season. He moved up to Double A Jackson, Miss., last year,
and while with the team in Wichita on May 15 he was added to the
Astros' 40-man major league roster, meaning the organization
prized him pretty highly. He called his wife, Sarah, to let her
know. "Make sure you tell your father," he said. The next night
Billy got a call from Sarah. Her father and stepmother had been
murdered in Virginia, each shot in the head while intervening in
a domestic dispute between another couple. "It was the worst
night of my life," Billy says. "I couldn't be with her."

The Wagners are still recovering from the tragedy, but their
pain has been eased by Billy's success. Upon calling Wagner up
from the minors on June 3 of this year, the Astros used him
primarily in middle relief, but they moved him to closer when
Todd Jones went on the disabled list on July 19. The results
have been spectacular: Through Sunday, Wagner had six saves in
seven opportunities since taking over for Jones, and he had
struck out 16 batters in 10 1/3 innings.

Wagner might remain Houston's closer even after Jones returns.
"I bet that's the first time Barry Bonds has ever seen three
straight fastballs," says Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell. "It
was incredible. Nothing bothers this kid." And why should it?
"Whenever I get in a tough situation up here," Wagner says, "I
think of growing up, and I say, 'This situation won't be the
worst one I've ever been in.'"


If Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez wins the batting title--at
week's end he was hitting a league-best .359--he would become the
first American League shortstop to do so since Lou Boudreau in
1944....When the Yankees' Darryl Strawberry hit three homers in
a game on Aug. 6, he became only the eighth player in history to
hit three in a game in each league. The others who did it are
Babe Ruth, Johnny Mize, Dave Kingman, Cory Snyder, Darnell
Coles, Claudell Washington and Larry Parrish....Quinton
McCracken has filled in beautifully for injured Rockies
outfielder Larry Walker, who has been out for the last two
months with a broken left collarbone but is due back soon.
Through Sunday, McCracken, who played football and baseball at
Duke and graduated in four years with a double major in
political science and history, was hitting .307 and playing
excellent defense in centerfield.

COLOR PHOTO: OTTO GREULE/ALLSPORT Hudler (below) blames the Angels' belly flop on a lack of leadership and spark among the players.[Rex Hudler diving after baseball]COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Wagner comes from humble beginnings, but he is reaching the heights as Houston's closer. [Billy Wagner pitching]